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Colombian Hostage Mission Awaits Rebel Instructions

A mission to retrieve three hostages held for up to six years by Colombia's FARC rebels is on standby as Venezuelan rescue teams wait for rebels to disclose a pick-up location.

On Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dispatched two helicopters bearing Red Cross markings to the central Colombian city of Villavicencio (south of Bogota), where they are waiting for further instructions.

A team of international observers and representatives of the Red Cross are overseeing the release. However, officials do not expect it to take place Saturday because the Red Cross will not fly their helicopters at night.

The rebels have agreed to release two women hostages and a child fathered in captivity.

Those hostages are Colombian lawmaker Consuelo Gonzales, former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her three-year-old son, Emmanuel. They are to be handed over to Mr. Chavez or someone he designates.

Argentina's former president, Nestor Kirchner, is one of the Latin American officials who came to Venezuela at Mr. Chavez's request. Mr. Chavez said he has been in touch with the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and France about the final phases of the mission to free the hostages.

This week's developments follow a diplomatic rift that developed last month between the Colombian and Venezuelan presidents, after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe complained that Mr. Chavez had overstepped his role as a mediator. The Venezuelan leader said, however, that he would continue his efforts for the sake of the hostages.

The FARC has offered to trade the freedom of its high-level hostages for the Colombian government's release of hundreds of imprisoned rebels.

Apart from the three hostages whose release has been promised, the rebels hold about 40 so-called high-profile captives. Among them is former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped with Rojas in February 2002.

The FARC also is holding three Americans seized in 2003 after their plane, flying a counter-narcotics mission, went down in Colombia.